Tuesday, March 27, 2007
Sting's lute, the known universe, and Taoism

I saw Sting playing 16th Century lute songs on PBS recently. Between the songs, he described musical elements in the compositions of John Dowland, who he called the first British pop star.

He spoke about some of the pauses between the notes, and how much he liked the pauses between notes in music. He said that musical notes are really just a kind of framing around the silence.

I blogged earlier about what I learned in Astronomy 101 class. I couldn't conceive of the scale of increasing distances from our sun to the nearest star, from our Milky Way galaxy to the nearest galaxy, and from our local group of galaxies to the next closest gravitationally-bound cluster of galaxies that form another local group of galaxies. There are probably even larger groupings of clusters of galaxies.

But hearing that quote about music framing the silence, I realized that these ever enlarging gravitational groupings of matter are only observed and named as bounded objects because of the vast stretches of almost completely empty space between them. It's the amount of emptiness that forms the boundaries that let us know the extent of a galaxy, the even vaster emptiness surrounding our local group of galaxies, and the dark, cold, almost free of any atoms or particles numberless cubic miles that surround whatever they call the clumping of local groups of galaxies.

Lao Tsu according to tradition wrote the Tao Te Ching when his students or followers asked him to leave something in writing about his teachings. The canonical Western example of the inseparability of opposites yin and yang is the two sides of a coin -- you can't have one side without the other. I think it's the almost empty regions that frame the bits of dust and heat that we can observe and ponder.
Friday, March 16, 2007
The need to learn XAML

Expression Blend will be out soon. I read that a Release Candidate is available.

Lynda.com is offering free training on Blend, probably only until the product is released. In a movie titled Animation Basics, the instructor dropped an image onto the design surface, and made the image grow larger over time.

Examining the XAML generated for the animation, he added an attribute to the <Storyboard> element (AutoReverse="True") , causing the animation to run backward after it finished.

Such settings might be set in a Properties window, but knowing possible attributes for an object or just being able to read them is bound to be useful in creating images and animations and interactive elements in XAML.

It's like the importance of knowing HTML vs. using a Web Design program. Sometimes it's good to be able to read the underlying HTML. Since Microsoft clamped down on Internet security, my Home Page would warn Internet Explorer visitors about Active Content. I removed the Flash animations, but the warnings persisted.

Looking at the HTML, I saw that my trusty old Web page editor had added some JavaScript to do something special if the Browser was Netscape Navigator 4.0. Since I don't know any of the 27 people who still use Netscape Navigator 4.0, I removed that bit of JavaScript, and the unfriendly warnings ceased.

The tools will save time, and provide the ability to create and preview visual elements easily, but I'm now convinced that understanding the XAML itself will be essential for any meaningful WPF work.
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
Who would be your choice be for most significant American of the 20th century?

Many people would list Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the most important American of the 20th century because his optimistic spirit lifted the doubts and fears of the collective American public when jobs were scarce and the stock market bubble of perceived wealth and security popped.

He also led the war against an imperialistic empire that did not understand or value the lands and cultures its army occupied (Japan) and helped destroy the German empire that similarly considered themselves and their society as the norm and pinnacle of human society.

Some might nominate Edison, but most of his most significant inventions were before 1900. Sorry, that's like a movie that comes out of the end of the year and doesn't make the top grossing films of the year or of the next year. Hey, it's my blog. I set the rules.

What if I were to ask who is the most significant American individual in the second half of the 20th century? Some might say John F. Kennedy, carrying over the political theme where political leaders are credited with changing and guiding a group of people. But Kennedy got us into Vietnam. The guy I'm thinking of did more than anyone to end the Vietnam war.

Some might say the greatest individual was whoever started the environmental movement. The guy who started Earth Day did nothing else positive as far as I can tell. The fellow who started the Whole Earth Catalog might have raised awareness of the earth as an ecosystem by putting a portrait of the round Earth on the covers of his catalogs, but I think he was more into providing tools and information for the alternative lifestyle known as the counterculture or anti-establishment or hippie. Don't ask me what I was doing during those years.

The guy who did more than anyone to end the Vietnam war probably also did more than anyone else to start the environmental movement.

Others might say that Martin Luther King was the greatest American of the 20th century. True, it was his genius that saw that the only way to fight a well-armed and entrenched belief system was to clearly show that one disagreed with that system but without violence. It showed bravery beyond what I can imagine. I can't argue with that choice. But the fellow I'm thinking of was probably the most important individual in the civil rights movement other than Dr. King.

Taking all his efforts and accomplishments into consideration, you might say that this guy is perhaps the person who changed our world the most in the past 100 years. And he's still doing it.

To be continued...
Saturday, March 10, 2007
Less typing. More typed. (My best writing tip.)

If you use Microsoft Word, you can make life easier.

If you write about some specific product or technology, consider the underutilized autotext feature (and to a lesser degree, Building Blocks in Word 2007). If you write articles or books or emails about computers or software, I'll bet you use the same base terminology repeatedly.

Suppose your company name is Amalgamated Industries. Type it in Word, select it (with the space after), and press Alt-F3. Change the suggested autotext name to ai, click OK and you're in business. Whenever you need to type your company name, just type ai and press F3. Bingo. Outlook can use Microsoft Word as text editor for composing e-mail, so the same two-letter shortcut should work in your emails. Real time saver.

I'm a technical writer for an audience of programmers. I write a lot of reference documentation for .NET objects, conceptual overviews, and simple tutorial procedures about how to use some related set of namespaces. Here are a few words I generally create autotext abbreviations for when I begin in a new group as a contractor:

I tend to make autotext abbreviations simple (p, ps, o, m, c).

Here are sample words or phrases that, if you use often, you might want to have autotext entries for:

Suppose you are writing an article or documentation about the Malicious Software Removal Tool. Wouldn't it be easier if you could type spy and press F3 and have Microsoft Word expand it to the full product name?

You can also define autotext for boilerplate phrases. The standard wording in the MSDN library for a constructor description begins with "Initializes a new instance of the xxx class." Every boolean property has a return value with this wording "true if xxx; otherwise, false." I include the xxx as placeholders in my autotext, and replace them each time I use that autotext entry.

For organizational purposes, I sometimes use a single Word document to contain the autotext entries that I define. I type the word or phrase in the same font and text size I will generally use in body text (Normal style) on a line by itself, followed by the letter x.

Select the word or phrase including the space after it, but not the x, then press Alt-F3. For some reason, Word wants to append the Return as part of an autotext entry if what you select has nothing unselected after it on the line.

Microsoft Word saves autotext entries to the Word template of the document where you defined the autotext entry, by default Normal.dot.

Picture this. You are one of the Gang of Four starting to write your book about design patterns. Wouldn't it be nice if you had the name of each design pattern defined with one or two letters, so that every time you referred to the Chain of Responsibility or Singleton or Proxy or Abstract Factory pattern you could just type cr, s, px, or af and press F3? Wouldn't that have saved you the most tedious 10% of writing the book?

And defining autotext is not a permanent change to Word. You can delete autotext entries or redefine them, even define ad hoc entries if you are going to be writing about some terminology for the next hour or so.

In Word 2007, they make using Building Blocks more visible (on the Ribbon), but the same keyboard shortcuts seem to work for me. Building Blocks aren't inserted into a document quite as effortlessly in my first pass of trying them out.

I hope you consider using this underpublicized feature of Microsoft Word, and that it makes your work on the computer easier and less tedious.

If it works for you, pass it on.

Flash update

Outlook 2007 uses its own Word template to save the autotext entries you create for use in your e-mails, so you might have to recreate or copy autotext entries from the Normal template to this special Outlook template.

If you use Vista's Microsoft Mail client, I think your Normal template autotext works either in Word or in Microsoft Mail.
Thursday, March 01, 2007

I probably don't drink enough water. It seems, well, boring and tasteless.

I have a new ritual in the morning. I drink a few sips of water before my cup or two of coffee. I enjoy the stimulating effects of caffeine, but I'm guessing that having some water first helps the system carry away leftover byproducts of food combustion with one's own personal Amazon. Well, you get the picture.

I think if they want people to drink more water, they need a catchy slogan: Water. It's what's to drink. ™

Here are some things I've heard over the years:

1. Let the water run for a minute or so first thing in the morning before using it.

The theory is that sitting in pipes overnight, water may pick up some metal or plastic or solder from the pipes. I don't know if that's necessary now that we don't use lead solder.

2. Don't use hot water from the tap to drink.

If you need hot water for cocoa or tea or instant soup, put cold water in a tea kettle and heat. I heard this from my mother long ago. Whether it's still true (see item 1) I don't know. Can't hurt.

3. Municipal city water is safe and reliable, available and cheap.

Andy Rooney did a 60 Minutes segment showing how all the office workers on his floor had their own little plastic bottles of water. He calculated that, at one dollar per bottle, the stuff costs more than gasoline.

While preparing to write this blog entry, I realized that part of the popularity of those little bottles is their portability. You can have them on your desk and take a sip whenever you like.

I bought one of those Pur pitchers with a replaceable filter. Seems to filter out the chlorine taste. Not too much trouble to use. Water seems to taste pretty good so I use it for coffee, cooking, drinking.

Bonus tip: I'd bet it's good to take a drop or two of top-quality olive oil sometime during the day. Maybe work it around in your mouth as if chewing an olive.

Maybe wash it with down with a cool glass of water.
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